Wingshooting Ammo, Old and New

With so many options on the market these days, how do you guide waterfowl hunters to the right load for their needs?

Wingshooting Ammo, Old and New

Sorting through boxes of wingshooting ammunition can often lead to head-scratching and a lot of ifs, whens, and what-nots by both the seller and the buyer. With rifle ammunition, buyers generally have a very specific brand, weight and bullet type in mind, and if you don’t have it, they will likely move on. On the other hand, for those in search of wingshooting ammunition for clay targets, small game or waterfowl, specifics like shot size, shot type, length, and even the load weight are all up for debate. The good news is, in most cases, if you can speak the language, you can make the sale based on the impact of the ammunition for the customer’s use case even if it isn’t what the buyer has used before.

To talk like an expert, every salesperson should be armed with some basic knowledge, including the differences between shot sizes, shell length, load ounces, high/low brass, and speed. The good news is that all boxes of wingshooting ammunition have the details on the box — you just need to know what they mean to be convincing. 

This is information you probably already know, but just in case you’re a new sales associate or more of a rifle guy who hasn’t paid much attention to shotgun shells…

Shot size: To help arm you with the critical knowledge, common shot sizes range from effectively T (the largest) down to No. 9 (the smallest). Simply, you wouldn’t hunt doves or quail with T shot, just like you wouldn’t want to hunt Canada geese with No. 9s. Effectively, the smaller the bird, the smaller the shot size, and then in reverse to the largest of waterfowl, with most mid-size games like pheasant or ducks requiring shot sizes of No. 2 through No. 4.

Shell length: The maximum is always dictated by the firearm type and model. For 12-gauge, there are 2¾-, 3- and 3½- inch. For 20-gauge, you’ll find 2¾- and 3-inch; 28-gauge, 2¾- and 3-inch; and for .410 bore, 2½- and 3-inch. To begin, the longest shell a person should buy is, obviously, the longest one their gun will except. Beyond that, longer shells have larger payloads, sometimes faster speeds, but also more felt recoil. While 12-gauge 3½-inch loads have a large payload, they also kick like a mule. This added recoil decreases the shooter’s recovery speed, and while the extra shot may help make up for a slightly off-target aim, subsequent shots are more rushed because it simply takes longer for the hunter to acquire their next target. You can shoot a shorter shell than your gun’s maximum, but not a longer one.

Load ounces: This is an important, and often overlooked, aspect of every shotshell. Longer length shells typically have larger loads, but there is also variation in load size within the same shell length. What it comes down to it, picking the right ammunition is a balancing act between loud ounces, speed and pressure. There is a maximum amount of pressure a shotgun hull and shotgun can handle, so to increase speed, generally speaking, the ounces of shot load are lighter to increase the delivery speed. More ounces equates to greater pattern density but also may require a user to adjust their lead slightly to make up for slower shot speeds. Some hunters like them fast, others like them slow and dense, so it really comes down to the buyer. In a pinch, a 1/8-ounce of shot more or less isn’t a dealbreaker.

High vs. Low Brass: The brass has little to do with it, but what it does indicate is a higher powder charge and thus higher speed. Most low-brass shells are intended for the smallest of game species and clay targets.

Speed: We have all heard the saying “speed kills.” While that may be true, the real reason is the law of kinetic energy, which is effectively mass times velocity. If you have the same shot size with the same density, with one moving at 1,550 fps and the other at 1,750 fps, the 1,750fps load will have more energy, thus creating more knockdown power. In some cases, that energy is important, while in other cases, for instance on smaller game, it may be more important to have a higher pattern density that can be achieved by increasing the ounces of load thus decreasing the speed. Oh, and that other saying about “equal and opposite” reactions also applies. If you move the same amount of load ounces at different speeds, the one with the higher speeds will certainly add some kick on the back end. 

When it comes to selling wingshooting ammunition, there are a few basic questions/qualifiers. What is the quarry, what is the range, and what is the time of year they will be used? While the first two questions are rather straightforward, the latter is a little more complicated. In the simplest term, as the length of the days shorten, the density of most birds’ plumage increases. For waterfowl, outer feathers essentially remain the same, but the down underneath densifies to combat the cold. This densification is why, for instance, many waterfowlers switch from No. 2 shot in September/October to BBs in December and January for Canada geese. The 2s give a better pattern density, but the BBs provide greater knockdown power that is needed for late-season honkers. 

Doves and Quail

Typically, smaller shot sizes are used because of the higher shot volume per shell. For instance, a  No. 8 1-ounce lead load will have approximately 410 pellets, while 1 ounce of No. 2s will only have 87. For fast fliers and smaller body sizes, having more pellets is better to fill in the “holes” within the pattern. The law of kinetic energy dictates that the smaller pellets at the same relative speed will have less energy, but that isn’t a problem for most hand-sized quarry. Low-brass shells work well here, but high-brass shells generally have a higher powder charge for increase speed, which can be important for hunting fast fliers. 


Since the nationwide ban on lead shot for waterfowl in 1991, finding a suitable, hard-hitting, replacement has been every waterfowl hunter and ammunition manufacturer’s goal. Simply put, initial steel loads that came out as replacements for lead were lackluster, to say the least. They were low density and just didn’t have enough oomph to break through the dense feather structure of waterfowl, even at decoying distances. 

Since those days, steel has greatly improved, but so has the selection of alternative non-toxic ammunition. Ammunition, including shot made from bismuth, tungsten, and other hybrid blends has improved the performance of waterfowl ammunition, but also at a steep cost. While the search for a lead equal, both in cost and performance, is still a work in progress, there are multiple quality options that put the wallop back in waterfowl ammunition. 

Puddle Ducks: Typically shot sizes No. 2-4 are used for most waterfowl. Sizes No. 5 and No. 6 are more than adequate for species like teal and wood ducks, with No. 4’s being a good bet for a mixed-bag hunt. Later-season hunters should start to move towards No. 2 shot for best results.

Geese: For most goose species, #2 is a preferential shot sizes, especially in the early season. Some hunters will prefer BB and even T if they are hunting big Canadas, and/or switch to larger shot sizes once the birds start filling out in December. For species like snow geese or other “little” goose species, #2’s are good all year round. (HINT: For snow goose hunting, typically a lot of shells are used. Most hunters are less concerned with the brand, and more concerned with the price point, as some days many cases of shells can be fired out of one blind but only a few hunters)

Sea Ducks: Sea ducks are notoriously robust birds. No. 1 or 2, or a hybrid No. 2x4, are good load choices, with some hunters preferring BB shot sizes, especially for coastal eiders. These birds are deceivingly fast, so many hunters opt for faster shot speeds over higher ounces.

Other Small Game: Birds like pheasants, grouse and other species typically require No. 4 through 6s, typically of the high-brass variety. These shot sizes are good for these robust species while offering a good balance between energy and pattern density. The 2¾-inch shells are typically more than adequate. 

The Brands

There are so many quality shotshell brands out there that picking just one is difficult. To help sort them out, the following is a summary of a handful of popular brands, their specialties, and their hottest offerings.

Aguila: Produces a quality line of standard and high-velocity lead game loads at a good price point. Perfect for upland bird species and doves/pigeons.

Apex Ammunition: Offers a robust line of non-toxic loads for waterfowl, including straight S3 steel, a TSS (Tungsten Super Shot), and a TSS/S3 blend in 12-, 20- and 28-gauges. Price points vary depending on the type, but the TSS/S3 blend is a nice compromise between high-performance loads and steel at a good price point. These bends are great for mixed-bag hunts and specialty hunts. Apex also produces a nice line of non-toxic TSS upland bird loads, which is especially important in states that have outlawed the use of lead shot across the board. 

BOSS Shotshells: Boss has a full line from .410 all the way up to 10-gauge using their non-toxic copper-plated BOSS shot. This unique offering is a step above standard steel waterfowl loads but at an attractive price point. They offer a lot of variety in shot ounces and sizes and come in a unique cloth bag that sure beats a cardboard box that disintegrates when wet.

Federal Ammunition: Federal manufactures a full line of shotshells for everything from sporting clays up to waterfowl and beyond in all gauges. They also offer everything from lead to steel to tungsten and hybrid shotshells. Their Hybrid Black Cloud TSS ammunition combines not only lethal TSS with steel to keep the price point reasonable, but it also is made up of a hybrid shot combination including mixes of BB and No. 7s or No. 3 and No. 9s for 12-gauges. This hybrid combination packs a lethal punch, combining great pattern density with significant knockdown power.

Hevi-Shot: Well known for their original offerings, Hevi-Shot sells a wide variety of waterfowl and upland bird loads in everything from Hevi-Steel to Hevi-Bismuth with a mixture of everything in between. Their Hevi-Steel is an improved version of conventional steel shot with a density of 7.8 g/cc. It creates improved kinetic energy by delivering higher shot load ounces at high speed and is available in .410 up to 10-gauge. If you are looking for anything from steel to tungsten, Hevi-Shot has a wide variety of loads for all species. 

Kent Cartridge: Kent maybe best known in the waterfowl community for their Fasteel and Tungsten Matrix offerings, but they also offer bismuth non-toxic waterfowl loads. Additionally, they have a full line of upland ammunition, including everything from FastLead to bismuth. All of their ammo is available for the most common gauges, 12 and 20, with some offerings available for scarcer gauges like 16. Their Tungsten Matrix is well-known to be a performer for waterfowl, and their plated Fasteel 2.0 hits hard at an attractive price point. 

Remington: Big Green manufactures a full line of waterfowl and upland bird shotshells in many configurations and gauges. For upland birds, the line Nitro Pheasant line packs a punch even in a 2¾-inch length. Their HyperSonic steel leaves the barrel at a blistering 1,700 fps, hits hard on both ends, and helps improve the energy of lower density steel shot. They sell ammunition at various price points for nearly all situations. 

Winchester Ammunition: Winchester sells a very comprehensive line of shotshell ammunition, with their most famous maybe being the AA. While the AA is great for clays, it is also excellent for smaller upland game and is a proven performer. Their Blind Side steel shotshells have gained a lot of popularity. Unlike conventional shot that is round, Blind Side uses stacked Hex shot to improve pattern density and increase trauma on impact. It also has a high packing density, with up 15% more pellets per hull. They also offer a new Winchester Xpert Snow Goose at a great price point for those who need to buy in a mass quantity.


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